I was five years old when I wrote my first poem… I felt inspired by the beauty of an evening breeze and I tried to capture it in the only words I knew, in the only medium available to me – crayon and construction paper.
[Please forgive the length of this post. It’s my 20th anniversary and I’m in an introspective kind of mood. But I hope to share something that will encourage you.]
I kept writing poetry, reams and reams of it – all very flowery and oh-so melodramatic. Throughout elementary school, I also wrote plays and short-stories. Somewhere I’d read that novelists kept track of their plot points and characters on index cards. So though I never felt quite up to tackling a full manuscript, I had multiple file boxes full of character names and descriptions and many painstakingly drawn maps to go with the elaborate plans for novels I had outlined in my head. I knew I’d be a best-selling novelist one day…
But then… it’s hard to say what happened. A lot of things really. Hard things. Grown-up, this-is-life, and it’s-not-pretty kinds of things. Things I didn’t have flowery words for. (Blogging hadn’t been invented yet. And keeping it real wasn’t really a thing.)
I read some truly awe-inspiring writing, by authors whose genius humbled me. I could never hope to write anything even remotely worthy. I could never dream of being in their league. Why bother writing anything?
At the same time I ran across a lot of truly awful books that got published and praised to the skies…. And I knew there were much better writers laboring in obscurity. And I thought, “What’s the point? It’s random and meaningless.”
I remember specifically making the decision. Like slamming a door shut – a vault – and throwing away the key. I said, in effect, “I want nothing to do with this. I refuse to play. I won’t take the field. I’m done with writing.”
I think I was seventeen.
I know it sounds young, but I’d been out of high school a couple of years. And it felt like death to me, the death of a long-cherished dream. But I had killed it myself, stubbornly, willfully – so I didn’t allow myself to grieve.
I still wrote in my journal – that’s how I talk to God and how He talks to me. And I wrote letters of encouragement to friends who were struggling. Sometimes they asked permission to make copies to share with their friends (which seemed kind of weird, but okay). And I spoke at women’s retreats and I taught Sunday School classes and Bible studies – and I wrote my own materials for these, because the stuff they gave me to teach from — well, you know.
And then, totally by accident, when I was 22, I became a professional freelance writer.
I had tickets to a major sporting event, and on a whim, I decided to apply for media credentials – because I thought it would be fun to get a glimpse of things behind the scenes. I was working as an on-air personality at a Christian radio station, so technically I was “media” – and interviewing some Christian players was as good an excuse as any. I didn’t know how to do that exactly, but there was this national Christian sports magazine that came in the mail to the station. So I called and asked one of the editors – and he was really gracious and told me what to do.
And then he said, “If you get any good interviews, let us know. We might be interested…”
I called the players’ agents, fully expecting (and honestly hoping) they’d say no. I just wanted to see what it was like in the media room and the press conferences, not actively participate! But they didn’t say no. So I learned really fast how to interview professional athletes. And how to turn those interviews into magazine articles.
The first one was published twenty years ago this month.
One thing led to another and another and another… Over the last twenty years, I’ve written hundreds of articles, essays, and columns for a whole bunch of national and international magazines. More than four dozen gospel tracts – one of which sold over a million copies. And more than 66 traditionally published books, including children’s educational books, workbooks, and curriculum, Little Golden Books, devotional books, Bible studies, and Christian Living.
That’s not counting the book I ghostwrote, or the three that were part of a canceled series, or the middle-school biography of President John McCain I was commissioned to write (it was typeset and everything) just in case he won the 2008 election. Or the dozen or more books I’ve been honored to contribute a chapter or story to. And now, of course, blogging.
Because I was TOTALLY done with writing at seventeen. NEVER going to write anything EVER again.
It has been such an amazing journey… so surreal. And nothing like they teach you in writing classes or workshops. (I learned this when I started getting invitations to attend some wonderful Christian writers conferences – as faculty.)
Remember, the first article I ever wrote was published by the first magazine I sent it to. The second one, they ran as their cover story. I didn’t start getting rejections until I was well into a pretty successful writing career.
But I did get rejections eventually – lots of them. I still do. And they hurt like… heck.
There were so many times I did everything wrong, because I didn’t know any better – and God miraculously threw open the doors anyway. He gave me favor – it’s the only explanation. But there were other times my ignorance or lack of experience was a hindrance to me.
I met dozens of other Christian authors and speakers as I joined professional organizations and attended industry events. Most of them were unbelievably kind, gracious, and welcoming – treating me as a peer, sharing their hearts, their lives, and experiences with me. They had no idea (I think) how much they were mentoring me. How much I was taking note, how hard I would try to grow up to be just like them.
Sure, there were times I thought I had brilliant ideas for books that nobody (including my agent) was interested in… or that he and I believed in, but nobody else did. There were several times I actually published a lovely book that got great reviews and sold a few copies. And another better-known author came along and wrote a similar book, with a similar title, and it sold so well, she got to sit down and talk about it with Hoda and Kathie Lee.
There were times when it seemed like I was headed for that kind of “whatever.” (We try hard not to use words like “greatness” or “stardom” or “fame” in Christian publishing.) I’ve been on the Christian best-seller lists a couple times. I’ve been on a few of the top Christian radio and TV shows in the country. I thought maybe God’s plan for me included packed arenas and lavishly produced DVD series.
But then… nothing happened. It never did lead to anything. And that was frustrating.
Since then, I’ve done a lot of soul-searching about where I am and where God wants me and what His purpose is for me… and what true success and significance is, and what it means (or should mean) to me. I won’t pretend it isn’t a continual challenge, but I’m pretty content right now – really grateful, actually. (For more, see a post I wrote a little while ago, The View From Here.)
I’ve had the incredible blessing of seeing God touch hearts and lives, shine His light, His truth into readers’ hearts. Seeing Him give them inspiration, encouragement, hope, peace, joy. Freedom. A richer, deeper, more intimate relationship with Him – as a result of something He gave me the privilege of putting on paper.
There are no words to describe what that means to me.
If you had told me when I was seventeen that today I’d be looking back at a twenty-year career in publishing, I would not have believed you….
If you’d told me when I was thirteen, maybe… but I’d have been shocked – SHOCKED – to learn that sports had anything to do with it, and that not ONE of my books published to date is a volume of poetry (for which you can all thank me)… or a novel.
That last one, I’m working on changing. Because the dream that died hasn’t yet been fully resurrected. Or fully fulfilled. Not until I do something I’ve always wanted to do…
For the sheer fun of it, for the pure joy of it – even though at times it’s miserably hard work, too. For the sake of participating with my Creator in creating something new, that He created me alone to do.
I’m a little scared… as I was when I was seventeen. What if I can’t really do it? It could be awful. I might not be able to find a publisher. Or worse. It could be awesome. And I might not be able to find a publisher who sees it. Or readers who see it, who get it. Who get me.
When I was seventeen I thought I was rebelling against the establishment, rebelling against the world. But maybe on a subconscious level, I was rebelling against the One who made me.
Because I didn’t want to be different. And I didn’t want to have to face any more hard things. Like the possibility of criticism. Rejection. Self-doubt. Insecurity.
Looking back now: Mostly it was fear.
God, in His mercy, spun me around so many times I lost my sense of direction and didn’t see where we were going. And then step by step, He led me on to the very battlefield I had fled. And there He taught me and trained me and got me battle-ready, before I even realized what was happening.
I defeated a whole bunch of opponents, before I understood we were fighting. And then day after day, year after year, as fear raised its ugly head – with its nearby cousins I had dreaded (insecurity, self-doubt, pride, ambition, striving, self-seeking, and self-serving) – I was already stood there. A little sweaty, a little banged up – but strong, and in my armor, with my sword in my hand. And He was right there with me. So there was no question of running, just slicing and dicing, and bring on the next…
In the process, I discovered all kinds of dreams – and gifts – and strengths (and weaknesses) I didn’t know I had. I found my true calling and I’d say “I” — but really it was He – built a career and a ministry.
It’s conceivable, if Jesus tarries (like my grandmother used to say), I could still be writing for another twenty or thirty years. I have friends writing wonderful books into their seventies and eighties!
Maybe they’ll all be novels. (I started to write “or poetry,” but I can’t. It was really bad, I’m telling you.)
Or maybe He’ll have something different for me to do. Maybe there’s another dream that needs resurrecting or one that has yet to be given birth to.
Whatever happens, whether I keep on writing, do something else entirely, or suddenly find myself (and all of you, sweet friends) rising to meet Him in the air … I know the rest of the journey will be an adventure.
I know I can trust Him, wherever He leads.
And I know I’m not going to be held back, discouraged, or defeated by fear.
One of the perks of no longer being seventeen.